The Romans in Kabul
Spurred on by the enthusiastic review in the TLS, I’ve just been to Paris to visit the exhibition of Treasures of Afghanistan at the Musée Guimet, one of the main French collections of Asian Antiquities. It’s a loan exhibition from the Archaeological Museum in Kabul which is travelling to various other venues -- but as yet (and maybe for obvious reasons) there are no firm plans for it to come to the UK. It is well worth going to Paris to see.
It is a brilliant show, putting on display the strikingly multi-cultural “classical sites” of ancient Afghanistan, including the cities founded by Alexander the Great on his way through.
It’s hard to imagine a better, or more timely and in some ways more poignant, advert for the Greco-Roman world as a bridge between East and West.
The highlight in popular terms (by which I mean there were long queues to see this stuff) were a number of first-century AD burials from a place called Tillia Tepe: the graves of five women and one man first unearthed in the 1970s by Soviet archaeologists. Exactly who these “nomadic princesses” were seems pretty unclear, but their tombs were full of golden treasures – from sequins, to bracelets and crowns. And it was aggressively multicultural too. Whoever they were and however they got hold of all their treasures (robbery and thuggery is a fair possibility), they kept in their coffers coins from India, Parthia and Rome, as well as (very) precious trinkets drawn from the heartlands of the Mediterranean and from points much further east.
A bit less glitzy, but no less interesting, was the material from the Greco-Roman cities of Ai Khanum and Begram (both in modern Afghanistan). Ai Khanum was a classical city founded in the wake of Alexander’s conquest. Most of what was on display was from the third century BCE, including Greek inscriptions and an elegant sun-dial (from the town’s classical gymnasium). As for Begram, so far as you could tell from this exhibition, its inhabitants of first century AD lived in a marvelously mixed-up cultural and artistic world, which juxtaposed Indian ivories (I've shown one at the top of this post) with classical bronzes of Minerva and Jupiter, far Eastern deities with the Greco-Roman pantheon.
There was something rather humbling about seeing ancient Afghanistan so closely linked to our “classics” – and so creatively linking different cultural traditions. Humbling when you think what is happening there now. Bagram Airbase is how Begram is now best known.
If you decide to visit the show, you are likely find queues to buy a ticket, then queues of about an hour actually to get in to the show, and queues once you are inside to see the gold. People are let in about every ten to fifteen minutes, in batches of 20 or so. I failed to take the advice that our excellent reviewer gave me – but it was very good and it would have made the visit a lot easier.
Once you are inside the show, he advised, bear in mind that everyone wants to linger over the Tillia Tepe burials and their extraordinary precious contents (which are displayed as if they expected about one tenth the number of visitors, giving only a few people at the time the chance to get a good look). So as soon as you are let in, make for that in Room Two first (getting in front of those let in with you). Then when you’ve done the gold, go back to the other material.
Meanwhile, if you are in Paris, don’t be seduced -– as I was -- by the exhibition of the underwater discoveries from Alexandria currently on display at the Grand Palais. Despite the queues, it is a cheap, commercial show, more photographs and videos than real objects. There is much better stuff in the permanent Egyptian galleries in the Louvre. This is what the forthcoming Tutankhamun exhibition in the London Dome is, I fear, going to be like -- despite the hype. Beware of that too.